Storming the Desert

Competition is heating up in the desert. All Big Four affiliates in Phoenix are players in news and entertainment, and an independent station, Belo’s KTVK, is a force, too.

The tight race befits Nielsen’s No. 14 market. Of the 25 largest U.S. cities, Phoenix boasted the most population growth between 2003 and 2004, with about 29,000 new residents, according to the Census Bureau. That powers the economy.

“You can see it in construction and new homes,” says Steve Hammel, general manager of CBS affiliate KPHO. “Every year, our growth keeps improving.”

TV stations grossed $398.5 million in 2004, according to BIA Financial. Gannett’s NBC affiliate KPNX is the top earner with $78.7 million, followed by Fox-owned KSAZ’s $69.5 million and KTVK’s $62.1 million.

Each of the big stations wins a key daypart. KSAZ and KTVK air hyper-local newscasts that tie for No. 1 in morning news, beating the networks’ morning shows. KTVK also claims the top syndicated program in The Oprah Winfrey Show. It’s unusual for an independent to have marquee syndicated fare, but deep-pocketed Belo has outfitted KTVK with Oprah and its King World cousin Dr. Phil until 2012. The station reruns Oprah in prime time. Belo also owns The WB affiliate KASW, while Fox Television operates a duopoly with KSAZ and UPN affiliate KUTP.

KPNX is the standout in late news, ruling the category in the past 44 ratings periods, including November sweeps. But KPHO, rebranding its news with a focus on investigations, as well as poaching veteran anchor Kent Dana from KPNX, moved from fifth place in late news five years ago to second in November. Thanks to CBS’ popular prime time, KPHO won prime in November.

KPHO bears another distinction: It is the first station on with news every morning. The news kicks off at 4:30 a.m., a half-hour before its competitors.

The most crowded news daypart is early evening, with seven stations broadcasting. KPNX stands out with the only 6:30 news, Arizona Nightly News, following NBC’s Nightly News. The newscast localizes stories from the national broadcast.

“At 6:30 p.m., our viewers are less interested in spot news like car crashes,” says KPNX General Manager John Misner. “We’ve tried to notch up the relevance with issue-based stories.”

In a different approach, Scripps’ ABC outlet KNXV added Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! last year to bolster its early-evening newscasts. Such moves are critical to get ahead in Phoenix. Says Misner, “Major station owners have recognized the potential in this market.”

Next: Minneapolis-St. Paul